36 years after Bentall tower tragedy, construction industry remains most dangerous

President of B.C. Building Trades Union says safety standards remain unnervingly low.

In January 1981, four workers died during the construction of the Bentall Centre when a fly-form used for pouring concrete broke away from the top of Tower Four.

One of those workers was 21-year-old Brian Stevenson.

His sister-in-law Diane Stevenson still remembers when she received the news of his death.

“They’ve made a mistake … it can’t be … this has to be a nightmare, this can’t be true,” Stevenson recalled thinking at the time. “But it was.”

Between 2005 and 2014, there were a total of 303 work-related deaths within the province’s construction sector, according to WorkSafeBC, more than any other industry.

“There’s statistics and there’s numbers, and people just read them and think ‘okay, it’s just numbers,'” Stevenson told host Gloria Macarenko on CBC’s BC Almanac, “But they’re not. It devastates the families.”

A restructured industry

Safety regulations have evolved since the accident. But, B.C. Building Trades Union president Lee Loftus worries that some contractors within the industry are cutting corners to the detriment of workplace safety.

“We’re starting to slide back. We’ve seen the industry move into a method and a process that’s taking us back into the same types of issues that lead to the [Bentall] accident,” said Loftus.

Loftus says the industry has been restructured, and is now moving away from prime contractors — a builder that has the full responsibility of a projects completion — towards an endless pool of sub-contractors and independent contractors, which are often small businesses or even individual workers that operate with lesser oversight.

“The responsibilities for education, communication, teaching — all of that is disappearing. It creates turmoil in the workplace, it limits liabilities to the owners, and it offloads that to the workers — and workers just want to go to work … they just do whatever the hell they’re told.”

Loftus points to asbestos removal in B.C. as a major area of concern since there is no comprehensive certification program that contractors must undertake before entering the industry.

“If you have independent contractors that have nobody that they’re responsible to and have no assets, you can’t enforce regulations or rules.”